Brian Haimowitz has been unhoused at times for the past three years. He chooses to sleep outside rather than use local emergency shelters. (Mili Mansaray/The Beacon)
Three years ago, Brian Haimowitz slept behind buildings and under bridges because he couldn’t afford a place to stay with the money from his job as a cashier at a local Wendy’s.
He said he tried to get help through Kansas City’s shelter system, but he was quickly turned off by roadblocks he encountered.
One shelter told him it required guests seeking admittance to its dormitory to check their phones and electronic devices. Though the rule was created to protect the privacy of clients, it was a deal-breaker for Haimowitz. He was on parole at the time.
“I even told them, ‘I’m on paper right now. I have to have my phone on me because if my parole officer calls me and I don’t respond, I can get in trouble,’” he said.
“We’re not in prison or jail. We’re men or women who need a bed.”
Unable to follow the shelter’s rules, Haimowitz slept on the street. He eventually found a place to sublet, but he lost it in May. He’s been living outside ever since.
Haimowitz’s experience points to a gap in Kansas City’s network of resources for people who lack stable housing. Service providers — and unhoused people themselves — say the city has no shelters with minimal requirements for entry.
When city leaders last year drafted Zero KC, an ambitious plan to end houselessness, addressing that absence was listed as a top priority. Although it is still trying to raise funds toward that goal, the city is preparing to seek proposals from organizations to run what’s called a “low-barrier” shelter.
“We don’t even have a low-barrier shelter, so we can’t even begin to talk about what success looks like if we don’t have the basics,” said Josh Henges, the city’s houseless prevention coordinator. “The first stage of success we need to be on track is to create the infrastructure that is needed in Kansas City. We’re 10 years behind a city of our size.”
The low-barrier difference
The latest published point-in-time count by the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness found 1,582 unhoused persons were identified in Jackson County over a 24-hour period in January 2022. Of those people, 711 were not staying in a shelter. Because the count only includes people who were surveyed, providers think the actual number of people living on the streets, in vehicles and in campsites runs much higher.
Many local shelters focus on transitional housing, a stopgap between houselessness and stable housing. Most transitional housing programs require sobriety, for example, and participation in things like job training, addiction recovery and life skills classes.
Transitional programs provide a path to long-term, stable housing, Henges said. But he said shelters that provide safe places for people without layering on too many conditions are needed, too.
“Low-barrier shelter,” Henges said, “is the front door.”
Zero KC is based on a housing-first model, which prioritizes getting people off the streets, out of camps and into stable housing as quickly as possible.
“People need necessities like food and a place to live before attending to anything less critical, such as getting a job, budgeting properly, or attending to substance use issues,” the drafters of Zero KC said in their report. “Shelter, however, in and of itself, is not a solution to homelessness but rather, a lifesaving intervention for any person in a housing-related crisis.”
What are the barriers to Kansas City shelter?
A frequent complaint among unhoused people in Kansas City is that existing shelters may require them to participate in religious activities or part with belongings or pets.
“At a lot of the shelters, people have to give up everything,” said Alina Heart, a six-year volunteer with KC Heroes, a nonprofit that provides support to unhoused residents. “If they don’t have a long-term plan, they actually end up worse because they’ve given up all their camping supplies,” she added.
Tamika Roberson, who has been homeless, has run into issues at shelters that don’t allow pets.
“I have an emotional support animal, and animals aren’t allowed in the shelters,” she said.
And Haimowitz, who sleeps outside, said he balked at the “local church involvement” required by a shelter he stayed at.
“You’re either forced to believe what they want,” he said, “or leave.”
Shelter KC, a rescue mission near downtown Kansas City, offers 60 emergency beds in its emergency shelter for men and plans to add 30 more in October.